A reappraisal of Betty Davis’s trailblazing music is under way
Her career as a musician was brief, but her influence has been profound
BEYONCÉ STRUTS around the stage, a squadron of dancers in various states of undress bopping in her wake. On her blockbuster “Renaissance” tour—which is expected to make more than $2bn by the time it wraps up in October—the pop star performs “Break My Soul (The Queens Remix)”, a mashup of her hit song with Madonna’s “Vogue”. The song is Beyoncé’s tribute to pioneering or legendary black female musicians; many of the names, including Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Nina Simone, will be familiar to listeners. One, Betty Davis, may not.
When Davis died in 2022, aged 77, tributes anointed her the “Queen of Funk”. For a long time she was little known outside music circles, as her performing career began in the early 1970s and failed to outlast the decade. But Davis holds legendary status among aficionados and they are bringing her work to a wider audience. Her songs have appeared in television shows including “Girls”, “Orange is the New Black” and “Pistol”. A documentary, “Betty: They Say I’m Different”, was released in 2017. The recent reissue of four of her albums offers another opportunity to appreciate her fiercely original talent.
Davis stands as a spiritual godmother to generations of black musicians, including the Pointer Sisters and LaBelle. Prince played the gritty, lascivious hard funk of Davis’s “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” to his band members, saying: “This is what we aim for.” Several of today’s stars cite Davis as a model. Echoing Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe has said that Davis redefined “how black women in music can be viewed”. Erykah Badu’s “New Amerykah” albums sound directly descended from such Davis songs as “Stars Starve, You Know”.
Born in 1944, Davis was briefly married to Miles Davis, the jazz musician; the relationship ended after a year as he was abusive. When Davis released her self-titled debut album in 1973, it caused a ruckus. The songs combined funk, rock, soul and R&B and a unique, freewheeling vocal style; her lyrics had an unabashed frankness, reflecting the sometimes filthy early underground blues songs she loved. (Today they seem quaint: compare “I said if I’m in luck maybe you might pick me up/All I wanna do is just love you a lil bit” with the words to “WAP”.)
Still, the tracks outraged listeners. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, America’s oldest civil-rights outfit, claimed Davis’s work promoted negative stereotypes of black people; the group joined forces with religious organisations in a campaign to have her music banned from the radio.
A mere six years later, after recording what would be her final album, “Crashin’ From Passion”, Davis had had enough. She had faced a relentless struggle against conservative mores and a music industry which, when not actively alarmed by her, was simply baffled by her singularity. (In the documentary she says she was fed up with “white men behind desks telling me to change—change my look, change my sound”.) In the face of public indifference and penury, she retreated from music, never to return.
Yet in those six years, she produced a lasting oeuvre of extraordinary imagination and lyrical ingenuity. Fifty years on from her debut, the doors at which she battered have opened for her successors. It is thanks to Davis that Beyoncé can declare: “You won’t break my soul.”
Listen to a selection of Betty Davis’s songs here
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